Understanding Carbohydrates

One of the most confusing food categories, carbohydrates are your body’s favorite source of energy and are necessary for good health. Here are the answers to common questions about carbs and diet.

Q: When I think of carbs, I think of bread, pasta, and cereal. Am I missing something?

A: In a word, yes. While those foods contain carbohydrates, they’re only part of the picture. In fact, carbohydrates can take the form of fiber, starch, or sugar, and include things such as bagels, tortillas, kiwi fruit, baked beans, yogurt, and potatoes.

Q: If fruit, beans, and yogurt are all carbs, where did carbohydrates’ bad reputation come from?

A: Carbohydrates can be divided into 2 main types—simple and complex. Simple carbs are largely responsible for the bad rap because they tend to be high in sugar and calories but low in (or void of) nutrients. Think candy, sweet treats, and soft drinks. Cutting down on the number of simple carbs in your daily diet can lower your calorie intake. It may also help with weight control.

Q: If good carbs are out there, what foods should I be eating?

A: There’s definitely a good side to carbs. Complex carbs, as the name suggests, have a more complicated makeup than simple carbohydrates. They include starches and fiber. Think cereal, whole-grain pasta, brown rice, vegetables, and fruits.

Q: So bread’s OK?

A: Whenever possible, choose bread that’s made from a whole grain, such as whole-wheat bread. The same holds true for cereal, pasta, rice, and other grains—whole-grain versions are better choices than foods made from refined grains. But eating too much of either simple or complex carbs can lead to calorie overload and weight gain.

Q: How many carbs do I need every day?

A: As a general rule, carbohydrates should make up about one-half to two-thirds of all the calories you take in daily. However, it’s important to talk to your health care professional about the amount of carbohydrates you need and what kinds are right for you.

Q: Can I still eat carbs if I’m trying to lose weight?

A: Getting plenty of carbohydrates in the form of fiber is important. Nutrition experts recommend that you try to get 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you take in each day. Research has shown that diets rich in fiber may help with weight loss or weight control and may decrease the risk of heart disease and other diseases. Good fiber sources include whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables.

Q: Why are low-carb diets so popular?

A: Weight loss plans that drastically limit the amount of carbs you eat are often touted as a fast way to lose weight. That’s because when the body is missing its main fuel source—carbs—it begins to burn stored fat. According to the American Heart Association, diets that call for very low amounts of carbohydrates are likely to result in low amounts of other important nutrients. Therefore, these diets are not recommended for the long term, even if they help you lose a little weight in the short term.

For most people, a smart eating plan includes the following:

  • More complex carbohydrates such as fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Fewer simple carbohydrates such as candy, table sugar, and soft drinks
  • About one-half to two-thirds of total calories from carbohydrates each day
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